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Reaching out to the world: Gaudium et spes

30 November, 1999

Michael Paul Gallagher SJ reflects on one of the most important documents of recent Church history, ‘Gaudium et Spes’, an expression of the changed climate in the Church during the years of Vatican II.

This month, we take a look at the most extensive document of the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, Gaudium et spes – “Joy and hope” – is by far the longest text in the history of Church councils. It is also the first ever to tackle the question of the “The Church in the Modern World”. That little word “in” is important: it is different to “and”, because the key idea was to reflect on the role of the Church within the complexity of the contemporary situation.

Change of perspective
As was seen in previous documents, the early sessions of the Council looked inward at the needs for self-renewal in areas such as liturgy, revelation and the Church”s understanding of its own nature. Before the Council met in 1962, there were no concrete plans to look outward at the changing conditions of life of today. In the draft texts prepared by Roman officials, there were negative judgements of contemporary errors and tendencies, but nothing else in this direction. However, on 7 December 1965, in his homily for the closing Mass, Pope Paul VI said eloquently, “This Council has been intensely committed to studying the modern world. Never before has a Council felt the need to know, to draw near, and to understand and to serve the society that surrounds it. The ancient story of the Samaritan has been the model for the spirituality of the Council. An immense sympathy has been the dominant tone in its work”.

Fifties and sixties
Between the condemnations of modern developments that were originally proposed and this positive stance of openness, the Council went through a process of conversion that had its impact on the whole Catholic world. Personally, I can remember the atmosphere of the fifties in Ireland, when we were sometimes taught to “despise the world”, and when we liked to think of ourselves as a sheltered island of true religion.

Even though the contrast seems a little too black and white, in the sixties a new mood took over, both in the Church and in Ireland in general. There was more openness, more confidence in our humanity, and even an economic boom. In the spiritual field, we heard less about fear and more about love, about Christ coming to bring us “life more abundant”, as the gospel says. Although some of these new “upbeat” tones came from the famous “culture of the sixties”, Gaudium et spes also invited believers to view the surrounding world with new eyes.

Mercy and charity
In this light, it is interesting to trace some of the stages of this change within the Council itself. Initially, of course, there was the desire of Pope John XXIII to have a “pastoral” Council and his preference, expressed in his opening speech, to “use the medicine of mercy instead of severity”.

In the months before that inauguration day in October 1962, the famous Belgian Cardinal Suenens wrote a pastoral letter to his people, hoping that the Council could become “an act of charity also towards the world”.

Heart of humanity
When he advocated this outward looking approach during the debates of the first session, he was immediately supported by the powerful figure of Cardinal Montini, who wrote to his diocese, only a few months before becoming Pope, “The Church must seek not only herself,” but must seek out “a dialogue with the world, trying to read the needs and hopes and sufferings that lie in the heart of humanity”.

Since, in its first two years, the Council was occupied with more internal themes, it was not really until autumn in 1964 that the project of having a novel document dealing with the world today got off the ground. The Council was strongly stimulated in this direction by the first encyclical of Pope Paul VI, called Ecclesiam suam, published between the second and third sessions of the Council in August 1964.

Starting from the words of Christ that we are in the world but not of it, the Pope called for a new approach of dialogue, and he used the attractive image of four concentric circles. The outer circle would include all human beings, including unbelievers, and the other three refer to believers in non-Christian religions, other Christians, and finally dialogue among Catholics themselves. With this background, when the third session of the Council opened in autumn 1964, the time was ripe for the reflections that eventually led to the text of Gaudium et spes.

Debate and unity
One of the most famous interventions in the whole Council came from Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna, who criticized the Church for having become paralysed in past forms of culture, and hence unable to recognize the good in the new sensibility of today.

Patriarch Maximos of Antioch – who insisted on speaking in French rather than Latin – argued that it was time to recognize the dignity and maturity of the world of today, instead of trying to impose laws on it from on high.

However, the key positive intuition that unites the document is what was called a “Christian anthropology”, in other words, an attempt to reflect on the permanent “mystery of humanity” and on the human condition today. The aim was to start “from below”, in order to understand Christ as revealing our human fullness to us.

A simple expression at the beginning of the second part of the text captures the focus perfectly: “The Council wished to ponder the many problems and possibilities of the modern world “in the light of the gospel and of human experience”.

Many of the theologians assisting the Council made major contributions to this text. For instance, the French Dominican, Fr. Marie-Dominque Chenu, proposed that a theology of the world needed to see the Creation and the Incarnation as united in the one mystery of God”s presence in history: “By means of the Incarnation, a new creation comes about”. He also insisted that “the kingdom of God begins here on earth”, especially through a community of care for the wounded of the world.

New humanism
In its final form, Gaudium et spes encourages a “new humanism” marked by a greater sense of our responsibility for history. God, so to speak, gives the world into our hands. We are dramatically free and called, with the help of grace, to transform this planet through loving service.

Enough has been said here to indicate the novelty of this document of the Council, in its tone, in its range and in its hopes. However, many of its major themes have been passed over in silence: the rightful autonomy of human activities, and issues concerning culture, marriage, economics, justice and peace. Next month, we will see how Gaudium et spes broke new ground concerning unbelief and unbelievers, and concerning the salvation of those who do not believe in God.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2005), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.